August 2008

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They may have eyes the color
of mirrors that stare with the steadiness
of glass. They may have porous bodies
like ponds in rain, like the diaphanous
wings of dragonflies in sun. They may have
tails indistinguishable from the skeletal
blades of dead grasses, move on feet
as quiet and precise as cobwebs.

That’s the fourth of seven stanzas in a poem by Pattiann Rogers entitled “A Mystic in the Garden Mistakes Lizards for Ghosts and Extrapolates on Same,” from her recent book, Generations, which I am re-reading for the first time. Isn’t it marvellous? What impresses me here as a writer is the way she uses imagery from nature to describe things that are themselves natural (though the narrator imagines it otherwise). The usual rhetorical strategy in contemporary, image-driven poetry is to try and highlight the strangeness of a thing in one realm, natural or human, by comparing it to something in the other — see, for example, the opening lines of yesterday’s poem at Poetry Daily. But in this stanza, as so often in Rogers’ work, the similes are all intramural.

This is something I’ve been wanting to do more of myself for some time, so I’m happy to have found a model. Last week, I was enthusing about Pattiann Rogers to some friends via email, and said I felt as if had graduated from Mary Oliver and John Haines and entered advanced studies. I hasten to add that that’s not meant as any kind of objective evaluation; all three are brilliant poets, very different each from the other, and it would be absurd to try and rank them. I am simply saying that for me, right now, this poet, this book is what I need to read. I’m sure I have plenty more to learn from Oliver and Haines, too — but not now, when the mental excrescences formed by my too-frequent readings of their works largely prevent me from seeing them in a new light. Writing teachers are fond of advising beginning poets to let their work ferment in a bottom drawer for a few months before revisiting it; why should a reader’s approach to poems be any different?

“When the student is ready, the master appears” — so goes the saying. I’ve apprenticed myself to many masters over the years; Rogers is simply the latest. I’m not too good at the art of literary criticism, which is why I so seldom engage in it here, but one other thing that really impresses me is the way Generations advances an argument, or series of related arguments, in a very subtle way that doesn’t dominate the collection, but simply provides a connective string for those who choose to read the poems in order. I like thematically unified collections in general, but I also like the freedom to read poems at random and not feel completely lost. With Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris, for example — surely one of the greatest books of poetry in English written in the last three decades — if you don’t start from the beginning, you’re not going to understand who is speaking when and where all the anguish is coming from.

“A Mystic in the Garden Mistakes Lizards for Ghosts and Extrapolates on Same”: I’ll admit the title made me raise an eyebrow at first. In my own poetry, with the exception of the recent Public Poems and Odes to Tools series, the title is almost always the last thing I write, and I like titles that are reasonably brief and as allusive as possible: “Generations,” for example. That’s obviously not an uncommon preference among contemporary poets (I’m such a conformist). But quite often, as here, Pattiann Rogers turns her titles into a kind of stage direction. If I’d written this poem, my focus would have been on the slow discovery of who the narrator is and the way her perceptions don’t quite jibe with reality. It would have been all about that revelation. And I dare say that would’ve been how an Oliver or a Haines would have approached the subject, as well. One can also imagine a more urbane poet — a May Swenson or Charles Wright, say — dwelling on the mystic’s mistake, and one can be reasonably sure that all of these poets would have used the third person narrator to establish ironic distance.

After the title, though, this poem is able to dispense with irony and delve more deeply into the nature of perception and revelation. We are led to wonder how it is that clearly erroneous beliefs can lead sometimes to profound understanding. After speculating on the sort of ghostly, “eternally vanishing” god that the ghosts must worship, the poem concludes:

The ghosts of this garden are like
the emptiness of pods and husks
under midnight snow when the moon
has passed, like the pause following
the clank and lock of the gate
at dusk, like the inevitable in motion
beyond the cosmic horizon. Strange,
what void these ghosts would leave
should the garden ever be without them.

And the environmentalist in me nods emphatic assent.

This entry is part 14 of 14 in the series Public Poems

Memo to the original planners:
this is what the future
actually looks like.
How do you explain
to yourselves our vagrant,
flagrant refusal to fit
into your uniformed vision?
Or perhaps we fit all too well,
making this project
into an efficient projection
of someone’s self-loathing
onto the cosmos?
For surely these highrises
amount to another Babel.
Some aspect of their conception
disrespected the natural order,
& now they are as hollow
as spent shells.
And just as in scripture,
we barely understand
the lingo of our own
flown children,
who say — we think —
that the prison feels like home,
that it has a yard,
that they might be
a little safer there
from stray
projectiles.

book of coal

My great great aunt Mary, stern unmarried schoolteacher from the hard-coal country of eastern Pennsylvania where all my mother’s people hail from, gave each of us boys when we were small a figurine carved from anthracite. Mine was a book, closed up like a sandwich and unmarred by any words, either on the cover or the spine. One of the others was a three-inch mug; I forget the third. Our parents put them away in the china closet, saying they were fragile and we could have them when we grew up. They therefore took on all the characteristics of a bequest.

Despite these precautions, at some point the book of coal got dropped, I forget by whom, and one of the corners sheared off — a clean break. Dad glued it back together with epoxy. I keep it now in a little shrine I made from an antique cabinet television. It keeps company with a bowl of plastic fruit, an empty syringe, the skeleton of a mouse, and a pitcher full of spent bullet casings. I might like it better for being cracked, and for fitting so perfectly in the palm of my hand. I rap on it now and then for good luck. It was wood once.

In case you haven’t clicked through to my mini-blog The Morning Porch lately, it has a new look, a new URL (though the old one redirects), and a few new features, including a search bar in the footer and a random post link up top. I’m still using Tumblr, and after ten months I have virtually no complaints about the service — unlike the frequently absent Twitter, whose 140-character limit inspired the format. (While I still do cross-post to Twitter, I much prefer the open-source alternative Identi.ca, where a growing number of other online writers trade thoughts, links, and occasionally lines of verse. You can read my own miscellaneous brain-farts, in addition to the daily morning-porchisms, here.)

The photo in the header may change seasonally; I haven’t decided. But the new design, which I modified from one by the Italian web designer Marco Giusto, feels almost too elegant for an Appalachian porch-sitter like me. Check it out.

Improbable doorways, hello. I’m walking off a drunk — a stagger-stepped and deliberate go at keeping the ground in its place. Down the deserted road two miles, growing steadily more sure-footed, then left through the sleeping village and around the gate into Ikkyu’s old temple, which I’ve explored several times by daylight.

Nothing stirs. The white gravel path is just visible, and I crunch past the meditation hall. I approach the bell in its hillside hanger, an immense shadow in the shape of an inverted sake cup. I stab its three-ton chest with my big finger. Hey! You think you so smart? You come to my temple, at Shao-lin!

No answer. I crouch down, remembering the Noh play where a monk leaps into a bell to escape a serpent. I crab-walk under, then cautiously stand, groping the cold metal.

The ancient bell is noisy with breathing. Startled, I bang my head, and there’s the faintest of reverberations, echoing for several heartbeats. This is not a hat, I whisper. A hat. A hat.

Chew, chew,
I’ve had it with this chewing,
rat’s teeth on a lead pipe,
a squirrel opening the brain-case
of a black walnut.

I don’t want to chew
like some glassy-eyed ruminant,
bottom jaw going back & forth
in the monotonous rhythm of pestle
against mortar.

Nor do I envy the carnivore’s lot,
so single-minded in its devotion
to messy drippy stinking tangles
of other creatures’ pain, the toxic
rot of its bite.

Chewing is a waste of time.
I want to return to the soup,
a fetus sampling the world
through its belly, a whale
with a mouth like an aeolian harp,
the whole slow song of it fed on krill.


If you can’t see the slideshow, or if you’re on dial-up, go here.

Gnarled stumps of pine trees cut down a century earlier jut from the tannic waters of Black Moshannon Lake. Though like most lakes south of the glaciated portions of Pennsylvania it is a man-made reservoir, a smaller, boggier series of ponds preceded it, and descendents of the beavers that built the original dams remain. Last Saturday, my mother and I were admiring the banks of cardinal flowers in the streambed below the dam when a small birch tree beside the trail toppled over less than fifty feet away. We went over to look and discovered that a beaver had chewed it almost all the way through, presumably the night before, but for some reason had left it standing.

Black Moshannon is a pretty special place, home to rare orchids, carnivorous bog plants, and many other strange and wonderful things. Botanists consider the 1,500-acre Black Moshannon Bog Natural Area to be “the largest reconstituted bog/wetland complex in Pensylvania.” The park is surrounded by a much larger state forest on the Allegheny Plateau a few miles west of the Allegheny Front. I won’t give the exact elevation, because I know my western readers will laugh, but let’s just say that it’s high enough to be significantly cooler than most of the surrounding area. So the small swimming beach is always a major draw.

In fact, our main reason for going there on a beautiful, cool summer day was to introduce my three-year-old niece Elanor to the joys of a swimming hole. She’s always been drawn to water, but her fascination has included a healthy admixture of fear. With some coaxing from her father, though, and with the example of all the other kids to follow, she was soon splashing and yelling with the best of them.

My own interaction with the water was solely photographic. Like Elanor, I’m drawn to water and never get tired of looking at it: the plants that grow in and around it, the trees and branches that fall into it, the frogs that sit quietly beside it, leaping in at the last possible moment. By the end of the afternoon, we were each relaxed and besotted from our long immersions.